HBCU presidents believe court ruling could bring more resources

Presidents of the state's historically black colleges and universities said Tuesday that a federal court ruling ordering remedies for persistent segregative policies in Maryland higher education could result in new opportunities and resources for their campuses.

"That could mean anything, it could mean Morgan could have a school of public health, it could mean Morgan could have a statewide center of nanotechnology," said Morgan State University President David Wilson, adding that he was still reviewing the opinion to determine its short- and long-term implications.

The 60-page opinion, issued Monday in response to a 2006 lawsuit, found that certain high-demand specialty programs duplicated by traditionally white schools — a form of "separate but equal" — encouraged segregation among campuses by drawing students from the state's black schools, which historically have been underfunded. To repair the situation, the opinion suggested mediation, new niche areas for black schools and the possible transfer or merger of some programs.

"For us, for Morgan, that could mean programs that could lead to the enhancement of" the university, Wilson said.

Leaders at the three other HBCUs — Coppin and Bowie state universities and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore — also said they were reviewing the opinion, but that they would be more than willing to entertain new prospects.

"If it actually comes to that, Bowie State University will look forward to being at the table to talk about ways that issue can be addressed in a way that's the most advantageous to us," said Bowie President Mickey L. Burnim.

"I hasten to add, however, that from the very beginning I think lawyers on both sides of the issue … indicated that they would very likely appeal if they weren't pleased with the decision," Burnim added. "So I guess I'm not assuming that this is the final thing we'll hear on it and that things will move forward."

In a statement from his spokeswoman Monday, Gov. Martin O'Malley said the state was "considering all of our options, including ... constructive mediation."

Maryland Secretary of Higher Education Danette Howard said in a statement issued Wednesday: "The State has supported the creation of new unique programs at all of our colleges and universities and is committed to avoiding unnecessary program duplication. The Commission and I are optimistic that all parties will be able to reach a successful conclusion and continue the good work of moving Maryland forward."

The court ruling, handed down by U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake, is the latest development in a decades-long battle to rid Maryland of policies that favor traditionally white schools.

The state operated a segregated higher education system for more than a decade after the U.S. Supreme Court declared such "separate but equal" programs unconstitutional in 1954. And it lost gains it made in the 1960s and '70s, when it allowed Maryland's HBCUs to develop and offer "unique, high-demand programs" that "began attracting significant numbers of white graduates" by investing in traditionally white schools that then competed with the HBCUs.

"These investments included further duplication of programs at already existing [traditionally white institutions] and creating new public institutions in geographic proximity to existing [HBCUs], including UB, Towson, and UMBC," Blake wrote.

Representatives for the University of Baltimore, the University of Maryland Baltimore County and Towson University said they were still reviewing the decision and couldn't comment on specifics Tuesday.

In a 2000 agreement with the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights, the state pledged to avoid duplicating programs, but the repetition continued.

Enrollment in Bowie's master's program in computer science fell "precipitously," Blake wrote, after Towson replicated the program. A teaching program at the University of Maryland Baltimore County led to similar drops in those programs at Bowie, Coppin and Morgan. And enrollment in Morgan's master's in business administration fell after the University of Baltimore entered the system and offered an MBA in partnership with Towson.

In 1976, white enrollment at HBCUs was 18.2 percent. By 2008, it was 3.4 percent.

"A lot of white students are hesitant about going to a black college. What they will do is choose the white institution" if given the option, particularly if the white school has a better, newer campus, said Marybeth Gasman, a professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania. "If you want [the HBCUs to diversify] then you have to allow them to create programs that are going to be a draw for a whole variety of people."

A coalition of HBCU students and alumni filed the lawsuit in 2006 complaining of current funding disparities — a claim Blake rejected — and the problem of duplicate programs. None of the schools themselves were parties in the suit, though its outcome affects them.

Gasman has long followed the court case and said she's "very happy" with the opinion.

"Maryland is one of these states that has just been dragging their feet on this forever and has not done anything to reconcile the inequalities within the higher education system," Gasman said. "I really think that it's a good decision and it's a sound decision, and I hope rather than having a kind of visceral reaction that the state actually will take it seriously."